Making change personal

Using change to grow yourself

personal development in an Action Learning SetIn the April 2014 Harvard Business Review I found a paper about creating a very open culture to encourage personal learning by Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, and Matthew Miller called “Making Business Personal“. The starting premise of the paper is that ’employees do a second job that no one has hired them to do: preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves’. This putting forward the best side, hiding the other side and hiding information about problems is a major cause of change failure and has been discussed in this blog in terms of reporting and Government Blunders.

Transparency in change

The article describe the mechanisms used in two (rare) companies that have succeeded in using failure (especially personal failure) to improve business performance. The key to both companies was their ability to make failure and performance management transparent to everyone in the organisation. Since these companies are rare it is not feasible to introduce this level of transparency and the necessary supportive culture to apply it to change. However, we suggest that such transparency and support can be engendered in a micro-group culture to support change. This micro-culture is an Action Learning Set (ALS).

By setting up and using Action Learning Sets we propose that the culture of open personal learning can help support successful change. An ALS already promotes open, supportive problem solving by a small group who build up trust and respect over a period of time to enable each member to address their business problems. Unfortunately most people in an ALS will happily discuss how others (outside the set) may be problems or get in the way of change; they rarely focus regularly on the what the individuals in the set may be contributing to their problems by their own shortcomings.

The HBR paper provides some practical ideas which we can apply to an Action Learning Set environment to encourage better change and personal growth.

Getting to the other side

This must be the start: the ability to open discussion about personal failings and contribution to the problem. It ‘involves overcoming thefight-or-flight response occasioned by confronting what you are working on about yourself’. This addresses our internal assumptions about the world of work and our perceptions about ourselves which may not be the same as other people’s perceptions of us. It requires each individual to be able to ask difficult questions about themselves and allow others in the set to ask difficult questions. These questions then need to be addressed and not discarded. It is another level of questions and support not often seen in an ALS: such as ‘What is it about how you that contributed to this problem?”

Closing Gaps

The authors write: ‘Ordinarily, in an effort to protect ourselves, we allow gaps to form—between plans and actions, between ourselves and others, between who we are at work and our “real selves,” between what we say at the coffee machine and what we say in the meeting room. These gaps are most often created by the conversations we are not having, the synchronicities with others we’re not achieving, and the work that, out of self-protection, we’re avoiding.’

The Action Learning Set becomes both the place to have the conversations and the structure for identifying and doing the actions that close these gaps. After all the purpose of an ALS is to identify action to address problems and see them carried out. The transparency we are seeking in the ALS is the ability through insightful questions and honest answers from individuals to identify the gaps and decide what to do about them. This leads to each individual identifying two lists of actions: those that will address the business change problem (the usual ALS action) and those that will help the individual address their gaps and improve their own performance.

Constructive destabalisation

The idea in the paper is that people must have a job that is beyond the capability of the individual so that they will need to try new things and potentially fail. Only by failing can we learn so we need a job that provides opportunity for failure. Foe most people working on organisation change this is not usually a problem.  However, the ability to realise when a situation needs a new approach beyond your experience and thus is an experiment is important. Recognising a learning opportunity in advance (rather than when failure is imminent) provides the opportunity to structure the action so that learning can occur.

In essence, a change in an organisation is almost always constructive destabalisation. This means the change environment is rich in learning opportunities. Seize them!

Everyone is a designer

In the two companies studied by the authors they found that everyone in the organisation contributed to solving business problems and system performance issues. They also found that the employees understood and regularly used the link between their performance and the overall performance of the business and its profitability. This informed widespread participation led to better problem solving.

Similarly many studies have shown that involving as many stakeholders as possible in a change, in a transparent supportive environment, results in commitment and more successful change. The ability of people involved in change to identify with the benefits of change and see how their behaviour affects the benefits is also known to improve change success (realisation of benefits).

Taking the time for growth

Sometimes it can be hard to set aside the time to reflect and participate in an Action Learning Set. Most sets seem to peter out after a while (depending on how engaged the individual participants are). The rewards from participation need to be continuously addressed and need to remain pertinent to the individuals. This is a common problem of urgent overtaking important. Support from line managers for encouraging personal growth as well and business change success is very important in sustaining the ALS during those inevitable periods of pressure and questioning the worth of it all.

Can you do it?

We are suggesting that the Action Learning Set is a good structure for encouraging personal learning and development during organisational change. To make this work requires a higher than usual level of personal questioning and action response.

Have you any experience of Action Learning in change? How does it map into the ideas above?

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